This is the fourth and final part of a serialisation of ‘Compassionate Conservatism – What it is, Why we need it’ – published by Policy Exchange. Previous articles in this series: Nothing to do with George W Bush, Needed – a connected society and Compassionate Conservatism.
And so to policy. We need to ask “So what?” Where’s the beef in compassionate conservatism? How are these ideas relevant to policy?
In a connected society, as we have seen, the emphasis is on individual freedom and autonomy, on diversity and pluralism, on the institutions that link people together, and on an awareness of common culture and traditions. For compassionate conservatives, reducing the power of the state is not only desirable in principle. It is also the means to secure better public services, greater social justice, and greater freedom and economic prosperity. The debate, then, is not about whether these latter things are important, but about how to achieve them.
This suggests three broad principles of political action. The first is one of freedom. It insists that individuals, as citizens, should enjoy a default presumption for freedom and against state interference in their lives. The counterpart of this is that individuals should take a greater degree of personal responsibility for their lives. After all, if the state is the means we use to pay for our health, welfare and education, then we can expect it to take an interest in how we are doing.
The second principle is one of decentralisation. It pushes political power and responsibility further down to individual citizens, saying that political decisions should where possible be taken close to the people they affect. In other words, those whom we have empowered to act must do so in plain sight, and from within a given community.
The third principle is one of accountability. It allows citizens to exercise their political will effectively by insisting that those in political power should be clearly accountable to the citizenry for their actions. This is to ensure better performance on pain of removal, and to maintain the legitimacy of a political system that places elected office at its core.
What are the kinds of policies we should expect, bearing in mind these three principles, and the guiding image of a connected society?
— We might expect a large-scale programme of state decentralisation: pushing more power and responsibility back to local councils and town halls, cutting back regional government, deregulating key markets such as housing, and introducing greater competition into the benefits system and the NHS, for example.
— We might expect much more empowerment of institutions: such as long-term plans and transition funding for universities that wish to become independent and offer needs-blind admission; locally elected police chiefs and opposition to the mergers of police forces; deregulation of the not-for-profit sector; and far more freedom and less bureaucracy for primary and secondary schools.
— We might expect a greater emphasis on sharing British culture: for example, through a voluntary programme of national public service aimed at old as well as young, and policies that move away from the present multiculturalism that divides different ethnic and religious groups, and towards a greater civic awareness.
— We might expect a celebration of individual freedom: and so implacable opposition to ID cards, to DNA collection from the innocent and to a national identity register; a drastic simplification of the tax system; and a drive to renew our rather seedy present political culture.
Even this short list would constitute a huge domestic policy programme. But compassionate conservatism also has implications for foreign policy. It implies an assertive, confident nation state that is neither Eurofederalist nor purely Atlanticist. It implies a broad scepticism as to the removal of powers from Parliament to the EU, and a preference for international alliances over permanent structures. It implies support for other democratic nations, but also for non-governmental organisations abroad: the “little platoons” working to promote pluralism, diversity and the rule of law in other countries. Finally, it implies a self-conscious re-commitment to Britain’s traditional civilising mission around the world.
Turning the vision of a connected society into reality will not be at all easy. To win big, we must be willing to risk failure. The kind of thoroughgoing decentralisation described above will bring with it huge political pressure, for diversity inevitably means different outcomes for
different people. The benefits will be huge: greater energy, greater innovation, a more productive economy, and a more connected, engaged and safe society. The challenge will be to achieve a smooth transition, and this will demand courage, wisdom and maturity from all sides.